A family visit

Some of the highlights of living abroad are the memories made when family comes to visit. It was June 2012 and my sister Megan, her best friend Coco, and my youngest brother Richard were coming to visit me in Thailand.As their trip overlapped my brother’s approaching 14th birthday we decided to make it extra special by adding a trip to Laos.

I arranged a few activities in Bangkok, booked a weekend to the nearby island of Koh Samet, and scheduled the main excursion to be to Luang Prabang, a beautiful mountain town, in Laos (or so I am told).I booked us a flight up to Chiang Khong, a sleepy town in Northern Thailand, near the Huay-Xai Thai-Laos border crossing. As planned the three arrived in Bangkok in late June and we began our holiday together, enjoying a few days in Bangkok before flying up north.

We arrived in Chiang Khong at dust. As the border closes in the early evening, we stayed overnight in a small, peaceful, wooden guest house (with rock solid beds!) overlooking the Mekong River and a five minute walk to Huay-Xai border. The plan was to wake up at dawn, cross the Mekong and then catch a 4 hour speed boat down to Luang Prabang.

Before bedtime I started filling out our departure cards from Thailand. Straightforward, requiring dates of entry/exit and passport number, I finished mine in a few minutes and went onto Richie’s. When I opened his passport I noticed his passport expiry date, August 2012, was less than three months away. As most countries will not allow entry if your passport expires in less than 6 months a pang of worry went through my stomach. I took a deep breath and thought, “New York let him leave and Bangkok immigration let him in, hopefully Laos won’t be a problem” and went to sleep.

When we awoke the next morning, we packed up our backpacks and strolled down to the Thai immigration checkpoint. I went first, handed over my passport, was stamped out and stepped aside. My sister and her friend were stamped next, and finally came Richard. He handed over his passport, but the return was not so quick. The officer paused, never a good sign. He handed the passport back to Richie and looked at me,

“We cannot let him leave”, the immigration officer informed us.

Realizing my worry was now a reality, “why?” I replied, trying my best to stay calm and act surprised.

Thai immigration officer, “he only has 3 months left on his passport”

That pang in my stomach reappeared. “They will not allow him to enter Laos”, he told us.

When my mother applied for the family passports 5 years earlier, my parents were given 10 years validity, but as Richie was a minor, he was only given 5. My mother well-intended, did not know about this small but significant difference. I thought for a moment of what to do. I decided we should try to enter Laos anyway.

I asked the Thai immigration officer to kindly stamp Richard out so we may attempt to enter Laos. He complied and we took a small ferry boat across the Mekong River. We walked up muddy steps and approached the Laos immigration window. As in Thailand, I handed over my passport, was stamped in and stepped aside. My sister and her friend followed suit and once again, Richard handed over his passport and we received a long pause.

The Laotian immigration officer looked up and told us what we already knew,

“He has less than 6 months validity left on his passport, he cannot enter”.

I took a long breathe, I was on the edge of the Mekong between Laos and Thailand with 3 guests that I was responsible for and no backup plan. I asked my family to take a seat and for the next 30 minutes I spoke in Thai (understood by Laotians) and tried by best to convince the officers to let my 13 year old brother into the country. After much persistence, the answer was a firm no. With tears of frustration welling up in my eyes I stepped aside and thought what to do. I thought for some time and then took out a map to see exactly where we were. It seemed Pai, a hipster tourist town in the Western part of Thailand was a straight trek. We may have already traveled far, but we were about to travel some more.

I gathered up my sister Megan, Coco and Richard, we crossed back over the Mekong River, were stamped back into Thailand (thankfully they let Richard in) and hopped on a saung-tow (a pickup truck with benches in the back) to the nearest bus station. Luckily there was an open air, local passenger bus leaving shortly for Chiang Mai. We bought tickets and within 10 minutes were on our way.

From Chiang Mai we caught a 9 passenger minivan and took another 3 hour journey through windy roads to the quaint, peaceful touristy town of Pai. Around 3pm we found ourselves tired but in Pai. We booked two rooms in a guest house, rented some bicycles and the rest of the week is happy history.

This “life lesson learnt in Asia” though stressful, was a good lesson both in travel planning and in life. In travels, I learnt the obvious, that when traveling always make sure to check everyone’s passport expiry dates well before making plans. In life, I was reminded that events will not always go along with your plans and it comes down to how you deal with it. Although we didn’t get to Luang Prabang, we did make the best of our predicament. We made great memories together in Pai and today those great memories are really all that matter.

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